Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from a to Z

by David Sacks
ISBN: 0676974872

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A Review of: Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z
by A. J. Levin

You may know this Monty Python routine: a woman, her husband, and their daughter are sitting around an English country home discussing whether words like "caribou" and "sausage" are tinny or woody. To a native or at least a very fluent speaker, the sounds of words conjure up a story apart from the words themselves. Just as well, or we'd have no poetry-and Christian Bk's poetry volume Eunoia has shown us that each of the five English vowels has a personality all its own. This is true of consonants as well. If you think about it, "B", "F" and "P" are all silly (bimbo, bum, frou-frou, Flubber, fumble, piffle, pee-pee) compared to the grandeur of gallant, rugged "G".
Ottawa-based journalist and author David Sacks documents the individuality of each of the twenty-six letters that form the (English) Roman alphabet. Sacks runs over the history of the sound and shape of the letters, following them from their origins in the Near East, through to the Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Medieval monks and Gothic runes, and to their present-day appearance and cultural significance.
Sacks is a smart writer and the premise is excellent, particularly the promise of a fun, modern "biography" of letters-Why is a movie "X"-rated? Why do things fit to a "T"? What's the "E" in E=mc2? Why can you get a "D" or an "F" but not an "E" on a test?
The execution, however, is less than overwhelming. The history of each letter is well-researched and the book incorporates the latest archaeological evidence. Still, you could glean much of this information from a good dictionary such as the OED. There are no footnotes, so while the text flows well, we have no way of differentiating solid fact from teetering opinion.
The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, samples of letters, drawings and the like. Still, these fireworks do not make up for what feels like the mere duplication, from chapter to chapter, of the original twenty-six columns (printed in the Ottawa Citizen). These seem to have been deposited into book form without proper adaptation to the new medium. Because a newspaper's requirements regarding the length of pieces differ from those of a book, common letters like "S" and "E" receive in Saks's book no more attention than their oddball brethren "K" and "Q". And because the columns were weekly, much of the information, in an already hefty book, is repeated. Adjacent chapters mention that My Fair Lady was based on Shaw's Pygmalion. And since "I" and "J" started out as the same letter, as did "U" and "V", much is needlessly redundant in the four chapters.
There are many interesting facts and opinions scattered throughout the work, but because Sacks is not a scholar in the field, he is not compelled to justify his assertions. In one case, he posits that the triangular Phoenician equivalent of "D" was dag (fish) rather than daleth (door), as it is commonly believed, and is in Modern Hebrew. His evidence comes from a recently discovered inscription at Serrabit el-Khadem with a fish-shaped character that follows the word ba'alat (mistress), or perhaps the words ba'al et ([the] (master). As secondary proof, Sacks tells us he's unable to see how the letter daleth, which gave rise to delta, looks like a door. But at this early stage, logographs were not separated fully from letters, so it is reasonable to suppose that the inscription was to a fish deity. Indeed, Ba'al was a synonym of Da'agon, a fish god in the ancient Near East. Then, too, tents had more daleth-like openings than our modern houses, and daleth doesn't look much like a fish either.
Sacks similarly does not see why the wavy letter that stands for "N" should have been nun (apparently meaning fish) when in early uses it appears to have been shaped like a serpent (nahash). But Sacks himself points out that the Phoenicians' writing came from the priestly writing of the Egyptians, and one of the great deities of ancient Egypt was Nu or Nun, the god of the chaotic Nile waters, the source of Ra Himself. Indeed, the last part of the hieroglyphic sign for Nun's name is a snake, and his wife Nunet is often depicted as having a snake's head.
David Sacks has tried to give us an entertaining book on our script, and with a little more care from author and publisher, this could have become a classic. But if you print a book on letters for the Canadian market, it would be better to spell the words la canadienne, and not to refer to "our specifically American spelling rules."

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